Beijing, Nov 23: The death toll from a landslide near China's massive Three Gorges Dam soared today when state media revealed the collapse had crushed a bus, killing 31 people.
The bus was found three days after Tuesday's landslide. Early reports from the Xinhua news agency had put casualties at the railway tunnel construction site at one worker killed, one injured and two missing.
The deaths come amid growing local fears and mixed official statements about land hazards around the rising dam.
The latest report from the scene in Badong county, Hubei province, said a road near the rail site had also been buried under rocks and earth.
By the afternoon, a local government Web site said, rescuers had removed the first body from the crushed bus, a long-distance coach from Shanghai which had been crowded with returning migrant workers.
The number of people aboard when the landslide hit was confirmed as 31, Xinhua quoted local officials as saying.
Thirteen of the victims were from five families, including a four-month-old boy, his 20-year-old mother and another two one-year-old boys, according to a partial list of the passengers posted on the Badong government Web site (www.cjbd.com.cn).
Authorities held out no hope of finding anyone alive. ''It's been too long, and the bus was totally crushed,'' Zeng Bing, a Badong government official, told Reuters by telephone.
A manager from the Lichuan Lida Bus Company told Reuters that officials had been alerted to the missing bus only after relatives and the company contacted them with their worries.
The landslide struck near a tributary of the 660-km Three Gorges Dam reservoir, sending down 1,000 cubic metres of rocks and mud and scaffolding, the Web site said.
The disaster appeared to be the latest warning of geological threats around the dam. Reports have not speculated on whether the slide could be linked to the dam's rising waters, which are due to peak at 175 metres above sea level next year.
Badong is one of the steep areas along the reservoir where local residents recently told Reuters they had seen more landslides and tremors since the water level rose last year, increasing pressure on brittle slopes.
In September, dam officials warned of potential ''environmental catastrophe'' unless erosion and geological instability around the reservoir were controlled. It was an abrupt departure from the generally upbeat propaganda about the world's biggest dam project.
Since then they have repeatedly said those threats are being dealt with and the dam's environment is better than expected.
''There have been no injuries or deaths'' due to dam-related landslides, Tong Chongde, a spokesman for the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee, told a small news briefing on Thursday. Today, Tong said he had not heard of the bus deaths.
In the rainy summer of 2007, landslides across the dam area killed at least 13, according to local news reports and the dam's own environmental agency.
At the Badong rescue site, rescuers used explosives to shatter boulders blocking access to the crushed bus, the local government said.
The provincial government said grieving families would be cared for, and ordered officials to ''protect social stability'', the Badong government report said.